Label Spotlight: Tarnished Records

posted January 4, 2007

by Corinne

Tarnished RecordsPlease introduce yourself.

My name is Brian Whitney and my business partner is Mike McNaughton. I grew up in the outskirts of Seattle. Mike grew up in Houston. Mike is a musician, and has been involved in the music industry in various capacities as a music director for a college radio station and a buyer for an independent record store. Other than running a pirate radio station in my hometown, booking an all-ages venue, and writing record reviews for independent zines, my only claim to the music business was a brief internship stint I did for Tooth & Nail records when they relocated to Seattle.

When and why did you start your label?

We got our business license in 2004, but didn't launch with our first release until 2005. As with most record labels, we started because of our personal association with musicians who we thought the world should know about, and a crazy notion that we might be able to help in some way. In this case, it was our respective wives. My wife sings for the band Palodine, and Mike's wife is Vivian Linden. Most of the artists on the label are in our circle of friends.

What kind(s) of music does your label put out?

Broadly stated, we put out Americana music. Or at least Americana-influenced music. Some of our artists are fairly straight-forward Americana/Country/Folk, and a few others lean more towards indie rock or even gothic influences. We seem to be turned on most by music that falls into the cracks somewhere between the "alt-roots" and the "indie rock" scenes.

What was your first release? How did you finance it?

Our first release was "Glory" by Anna Coogan & north19. It was actually a re-release of a record that the band had already released on a local level. We were fortunate in that they had already paid for their own recording and had already begun to get some recognition in the local market. It was a big learning curve for us, however, and looking back on it I think we would have done some things differently in the promotion department.

What is your most recent release?

By the time this interview posts, we will probably have released "Werner Ghost Truck," the second full-length record by a Rhode Island-based band known as Barn Burning. I would call it "Gothic Folk Rock" and place it somewhere between Joy Division and Drive By Truckers. They were actually referred to me by Robert Fisher, the mastermind behind Willard Grant Conspiracy, a musician who I have tremendous respect for.

How do you feel about sharing music on the Internet?

As a legal medium, websites like Myspace, eMusic, iTunes, and independent webzines such as yours have done an incredible job of giving music fans access to independent artists. As an illegal file-sharing medium, I think the Internet has been instrumental in causing independent record labels, independent retail stores, and ultimately the artists, to struggle. Personally, I think anyone who considers themselves a supporter of independent music should be a little ashamed if they aren't supporting the artist financially as well. That said, I think we have taken great strides in making legal file sharing a cost effective and convenient process for fans, and I am tremendously optimistic about the future of digital distribution.

Any words of wisdom for those interested in running their own label?

For me, it needs to be a pursuit of passion. The odds are stacked against you, but I think you can look past the odds if you are madly in love with the music you are putting out. The fact is that there are thousands of records being put out each year, each one striving for attention, and getting anyone to notice your records - particularly if you are putting out debut releases from relatively new artists - can be a daunting, seemingly impossible task. The natural inclination, at least for me, was to "shoot for the moon" by trying to promote a record as broadly as possible. What I am starting to realize is that whether you are a band or a label, you build your support base one fan at a time. Having bands that are out on the road getting in front of their fans seems to play a big role in whether you sell 100 or 10,000 copies of a record.

What has been your most successful release?

Since we are still "in the red" on all of our releases, it's hard to define success in the terms of profit. I would say that our artists have gained some success in different areas. Vivian Linden, for instance, has done a good job of developing a European fan base, and we seem to be moving more of her records overseas than anyone else. On the other hand, Palodine has been steadily gaining fans on Myspace, and we have noticed a significant increase in their digital download sales. Still, the majority of records we move are sold out of the back of our artist's tour vans, which I think is pretty normal for a label of our size.

What's the best way and the worst way to get a label's attention?

Put yourself in the shoes of a small record label with barely enough money to put out two or three records over the next year. With no shortage of talent, what makes your band stand out enough for a label to want to risk their limited resources on? Keep in mind that labels like Barsuk, Saddle Creek and even Sub Pop were all started by a group of friends who lived in the same town together. Think about your own circle of friends. Are any of them budding entrepreneurs who might make a good record label exec? Maybe you should talk to them. If you are shopping your demo around and don't get any offers, try not to get discouraged. There's nothing wrong with pressing the record yourself, putting it up on CDbaby, picking up a copy of the "Indie Bible" and "The Musician's Guide to Touring and Promotion" and releasing the record yourself. The key thing is to get on the road and start selling records at your shows, and building up your fan base one person at a time. The best way to get a label's attention is by acting like you don't need them. That also works for attracting a booking agent.

Regardless of genre, what do you look for in the artists and bands you sign?

I really look for artists who understand that they are every bit as responsible for their own success as any label, booker, promoter, or producer that they ever work with. I like an artist who takes a hands on approach to their career and asks me questions like "what more can I be doing to help sell records?" rather than "what have you guys been doing to sell my records?" I also tend to be attracted to artists who are multi-faceted in their talents. Andy McAllister from Conrad Ford also writes and directs independent films. Katrina from Palodine is also a visual artist and photographer. A recent signing, Whiting Tennis, is a successful fine artist. Besides co-running a record label, I have also written and directed plays for "fringe theater." Not that being a fine artist, photographer, or director is a pre-requisite for working with us, but I think perhaps I am attracted to the passionate need for self-expression that these individuals possess, which is something that I feel in myself. They also seem to have a broad understanding how difficult it is to succeed in any art form, regardless of the chosen medium.

There are a lot of legalities involved in running a label (signing bands, releasing records, everyday work, etc.). How does your label deal with these things?

Probably not as well as we should, but we seem to muttle through. Over the past year, Mike and I seem to have settled into our respective roles. He handles our advertising, accounting and distribution relations, while I handle most of our artist relations, pressing and promotion tasks. Besides the record label, Mike and I still work regular jobs and I have a two year old son who keeps me pretty busy. We slip in whatever hours we can to the record label (including typing this email at 11:30PM). I think there is some truth in the old saying that "if you need to get something done, ask the busiest person you know" because they have learned how to prioritize. I also think that open and regular communication with our artists is key. I send out emails when I come across a new review or airplay feedback, and every month we send out an updated "sales & expenses" spreadsheet which informs the artist of any sales they have had, where the sales came from, and any new expenses the label has incurred on behalf of their release. I think it's important for the artists to feel that our books are open to them, and that we are not trying to cheat them or hide anything.

What upcoming releases can we expect from Tarnished Records?

We have three great records scheduled for release in the first half of 2007. I have already mentioned two, Barn Burning (this month) and Whiting Tennis (March). We will also be releasing a follow up record from Palodine, hopefully in June. You can check out any of these artists on our myspace page at www.myspace.com/tarnishedrecords. I'm really excited about these releases.

Anything else you would like to add?

Just a big thank you for taking enough interest in Tarnished Records to include us in your label feature. Any exposure helps us long our path, and I truly appreciate it. Hopefully, someone reading this, whether it be a fan of your webzine or a staff member, will check out our artists. Who knows, maybe they might find a new favorite band.